Margaret Cho: the PsyCHO comedian has Tooken our hearts again (INTERVIEW)

margaret-cho-standupOh, Margaret Cho. Whether she’s psycho, or one bad mother, or charitably spreading her charity through charitable acts – like a little campaign you may have heard of, #BeRobin – the unstoppable comedian and actress never ceases to amaze, surprise, and blow audiences completely away. And get this; she’s been doing stand-up since she was 14. Fourteen. What were you doing at fourteen? If you’re like me, you were probably cutting class and shoplifting Bic lighters from the local 7/11 – nothing near as cool as hanging out with the likes of Robin Williams while grooming yourself to be a major comedy star. With a seemingly endless series of live tours and specials under her diamond-studded belt (the latest, PsyCHO, kicks off June 19 in Orlando, and tickets for other dates are on sale here), you’d think Madam Margaret would be satisfied stopping there, but she’s also found time to work in a movie role as the villain BrownFinger in Tooken, a spoof of the hugely popular Taken franchise, which is now available for streaming on Video on Demand s. And then, of course, there’s the #BeRobin campaign, which has raised countless amounts of money for local homeless communities. Sitting down for our fourth – fourth! – conversation, the divine Miss M waxed philosophic on her lengthy career in comedy, what makes her laugh about troubling current events, and why Robin Williams and Joan Rivers were her comedy parents.

My first question, and this is mostly just to satisfy my own curiosity, is this: is the Brown Finger character based off of Kim Jung Un?

No, you know what I actually thought he was based off? More like one of those Samurai or sword fight movies. Or like Steven Seagal. He looks like Steven Seagal to me, especially with that man-braid. It’s just so terrible, and it was actually kind of uncomfortable to get into that get-up. It was rough.

How did you get involved with Tooken? Are you a fan of the Taken franchise? Ironic fan?

Oh, I am a fan [of Taken]. I think it’s a great kind of genre movie, where you have the ex-cop who has kind of fallen on hard times, and then they give him the opportunity to become a hero again. I think it’s kind of fun. Anyway, when they’d started shooting Tooken, they still hadn’t found someone for the Brown Finger role, and Lee Tergesen, the star of the movie, approached me about it. Lee and I are really good friends, so it was a fun thing for us to do together.

Are you much involved in shaping the comic direction of your characters, when you act in movies?

I mean, I can usually pretty much create it, if that character is like anything else I do in comedy: try to push it, make it as funny as you can. You definitely have a lot of control over it.

Let’s talk about the PsyCHO tour a bit. Is it going to be entirely new material? Will you be throwing any classic jokes in?

It’s all new material. I hope to talk about things in a different way; whenever you do a new show, it’s like you get to reinvent yourself entirely. I’m really excited about it.

What wells of information did you draw upon for material?

All different sorts of things. I have a really intense, rising frustration with the way that women are treated in the media, and the way that things like the Bill Cosby case are being covered. There are people out there that still doubt he’s a rapist? That’s so insane! There was another big scandal in Canada, with Jian Ghomeshi, which is like a similar sexual assault case, in that he’s this famous, broadcasting guy. Looking at these two scandals together, and comparing the American and Canadian response, it’s hard to make sense of why people are not believing the victims [in America]. As comedians, I think it’s important for us to talk about it, and somehow make these things funny, but also cathartic.

What would you say troubles you the most about the world today?

It’s all the violence against women. I don’t understand if it’s just being reported on more, or what’s going on, but I think it’s happening all over the world, and it’s frustrating not to see any kind of progress. Things like the Nigerian school girls to the domestic violence we’re seeing here – all these things make you want to doctor the situation, but you can’t control it.

When you brought up Bill Cosby earlier, I thought it was interesting that you compared the American and Canadian response under similar circumstances. Why do you think cases like these are harder for Americans to accept? Do we have a culture that’s more comfortable with violence?

Yes we do. And I think that when women have been silenced such a long time, they don’t even think to speak up, because you get so used to the silence. There are, what, almost 50 women who have come forward against Cosby now? It’s between 40 and 50 now, I guess. They all have the same story, the same exact circumstances, and yet there’s still doubt. In Canada, it seemed like people really, intently, believed the women, because they had the similarity in their stories. I don’t know what it is with America, that we kind of blame the victim, and make them want to be silent.

I just wonder what other kind of crime requires more than 40 witnesses to prove that it happened.

I know, and it’s crazy! Because of his reputation as an American treasure, people don’t want to cloud their memories of him. He’s still a criminal, you know. Two personalities can exist in the same person. You can still be a great comedian, and still be a criminal.

Since they say that comedy is tragedy plus time, how do you go about finding the funny in events that are currently unfolding, like riots against police brutality?

First, you have to figure out exactly how you’re feeling about the situation, and then you consider how you could help yourself feel better about it. And I think that’s what comedy really is – ultimately, it’s just a coping mechanism for everything. When you’re looking at events that are happening in the world, you can find comedy through your ability to want to cope with the trauma of it.

You’ve referred to Robin Williams and Joan Rivers as your comedy mom and dad. What roles did they play in helping you develop your comic sensibilities? Did you look up to them even as a kid?

With Joan Rivers, it was like I saw her, and I wanted to be her. That was as a kid. I really admired her so much, and I just wanted to be her. And with Robin, I used to see him around a lot, because he was actually working as the doorman for this comedy club that I lived across the street from [in San Francisco]. He was obviously very famous already, but he would come back sometimes just to be part of the comedy scene, to work in the clubs. I always ended up having to follow him, every time. It’s really hard to follow him.

I bet!

Yeah, it was really scary, but through him I really learned how to do comedy.

So you met him when you were pretty young, huh?

Yeah, I was just a kid. I was doing comedy pretty young, from like the ages of 14, 15, and 16, and I was hanging around that club. He was very much a fixture, so I saw him a lot.

Did he take you under his wing, in any sort of sense?

No, not more so than anybody else. I mean, we all really admired him, you know? He was the kind of guy that people would go to if they needed money; he was always very generous to us comics, and you really got the sense that he just wanted to be one of us again. He was a real role model – someone you looked up to and wanted to be like.

Well, you’re certainly a legendary comedian in your own right. Has that memory of him made you want to do the same thing – be around up-and-coming comedians in that sort of organic way?

Oh yes, it’s very important. It’s a very important thing to do, because comedy is such an under-appreciated art form. We all have our mentors and apprentices, and under the best case scenario conditions, that’s really the ideal way to do it. Mentoring not only helps young comics, but it really helps you grow and develop as a comedian, too.

What aspect of the #BeRobin campaign has made you the most proud? What surprised you the most as the campaign unrolled?

I think what’s great about it is that people are so generous. People are donating not just money and clothing and food, but they will also come out and give homeless people haircuts, and doing things like trimming toenails and fingernails – sidewalk pedicures. Everybody involved is just mind-blowing; everybody performed or worked for free during those events, and I thought that was really meaningful.

Will you be keeping it coming for years into the future?

I’d like to. I won’t be able to do it for the next few months, but they still do carry on with it. Anybody can do it in their town – it’s a pretty simple thing to put together. You create a meeting point for people to donate, and just go from there. I’m really proud of it; it’s a great project to do, and a great charity, and I’ll keep doing it until I’m completely unable.

Emma Kat Richardson

Emma Kat Richardson is a Detroit native and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in, Bitch, Alternative Press, Real Detroit Weekly, 944, and She’s enough of a comedy nerd and cat lady to have named her Maine Coon Michael Ian Cat. Follow her on twitter: @emmakat.

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